Pat Valenzuela's Rough Ride : The Champion Jockey Claims He's Back on Track After Tamong His Drug Problems

Peter Crane Bennett is a Los Angeles writer and former racetrack publicist.

ON RACQUETBALL COURT NO. 5 AT THE Arcadia All-Pro Athletic Club, jockey Patrick Valenzuela fusses with a turquoise cap turned backward on his head, swats the air with his racket, then taps the bleached hardwood, signaling his impatience for the next shot.

His opponent, Richard Duggan, lofts a lazy serve to Valenzuela's right. Valenzuela bulls his way to the ball and blasts it high off the front wall. Duggan deftly intercepts the ball and deadens it in the corner to go up 14-13.

Duggan, 56, a British blood-stock agent who looks aristocratic even in heather-gray sweats, waits as Valenzuela tugs at his shoelaces and peels away his sweat-soaked parka. This time Duggan squibs a shot just over the service line. Startled, Valenzuela dives but scoops nothing but air. Game: Duggan.

"Hey, it's not over," Valenzuela says. "It's the best two out of three."

Duggan protests this sudden change of the rules, but, overpowered by his opponent's brash insistence, lets Valenzuela push him to three games. When Duggan finally wins the match--the prize is a glass of Coca-Cola--Valenzuela teases him: "You gotta make these old guys feel good about themselves."

Once again, Valenzuela, with no weapon other than his stubbornness, has gotten his way. It is his trademark in the sport that made him famous when he was only a teen-ager--his talent for creating opportunities where none seem to exist. But now, at 28, he is facing what may be his last chance. He is waiting out a six-month suspension from horse racing imposed by the Hollywood Park board of stewards after he refused to take a mandatory drug test. Two years before, he had tested positive for cocaine and had been suspended for 60 days.

Valenzuela, who calls himself a recovering drug addict, is ineligible to race until May 12. Next Saturday, when the 117th Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs, Valenzuela, the talented descendant of a four-decade racing dynasty, will not be there. It is the archetypal story of self-destructive success. The main character could be a movie star, a politician or a football player. But in this version, it's a jockey whose ability to crash and come back is almost as legendary as his ability to win big-stake races. When Valenzuela returns two weeks from today, he must try not only to regain his winning ways but also to outrun the long memories of trainers and owners who see him as charming and gifted but utterly unreliable. Valenzuela's peers are taking even odds on his success. "He's a cat with many lives," says trainer Eddie Gregson. But others believe that he has had his last comeback, that he doesn't deserve another.

Valenzuela seems unconcerned. Leaving the racquetball court, he grips the steering wheel of his black Porsche Carrera and heads north along the border of Santa Anita Race Track's eastern entrance.

"When I get back on that racetrack, they're going to have a tough cookie to deal with," he says. "I'm going to eat their lunch. The first day I come back, I can almost guarantee you I'll win a race.

"This is going to be my greatest comeback ever."

THE EARLY MORNING sunlight washes over Santa Anita Park after three days of rain. The track shimmers against the rugged silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains. In the stable area on the side of the track, the acrid odors of mucked straw, saddle soap and liniment filter through the weathered green shed rows marked by the names of such Kentucky Derby hopefuls as Dinard, Best Pal and Sea Cadet. Grooms are busy picking hoofs clean, curry-combing and bathing horses. Spread across the vast, red-tiled apron in front of the main grandstand are trainers clinging to their stopwatches. Their dreams for gold and glory are divided into fifths of a second, each fifth representing about one length in a race.

The jockeys are making the rounds, offering to work horses, any horses, in hope that trainers will retain their services for the afternoon. The jockeys' agents are hustling, too, schmoozing trainers, trying to get "their boys" on top of as many horses as possible. It's a high-pressure business; a jockey's salary is 10% of the purses he wins, and his agent gets 25% of his cut. You can't win purses unless you ride in races, lots of races.

In Southern California, the competition--on and off the track--is fierce, and year round. The season goes from Santa Anita, to Hollywood Park, to Del Mar, to Fairplex in Pomona, then back to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Everyone gets Christmas off, but on the 26th, they're back at the track, five days a week, nine races a day.

"We've become like an all-night restaurant," says Gregson, who trained 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol. "Everybody suffers."

In this blue-chip riding colony, jockeys are independent contractors who can't afford to give themselves a vacation. "I wouldn't enjoy a vacation knowing that everybody is riding my horses," says Chris McCarron, 36, the youngest rider to reach the 5,000-win plateau. "And I would have trouble getting back on the horses I left behind."

Personal rivalry is more heated than in other sports. For one thing, jockeys share a locker room, where tensions can boil over at any time. During Hollywood Park's fall meeting in 1988, Valenzuela broke his right hand in a fight with top jockey Gary Stevens, precipitated by several close finishes between them.

But jockeys save most of their aggression for battling weight. Many riders, with frames as svelte as those of fashion models, maintain a punishing daily regimen of starving and sweating, rather than risk the anger of owners and trainers for overloading the fragile horses. If the 5-foot-4, 116-pound Valenzuela goes off his diet the night before he races, he'll play racquetball in the morning or sit a little longer in the steam room. Other jockeys routinely binge and purge their meals, a habit known around the track as heaving or flipping. Jockey Larry Gilligan, still riding at 53, flipped for 15 years when he was riding in New Jersey in the '60s. "There was no way possible I could keep my weight down and go ahead and eat a nice meal with my family," Gilligan recalls. "All your top riders were flippers."

While jockeys grouse about losing weight, few will talk about the more immediate peril--a career-ending fall. "You can be on top of the world," Gilligan says, "and the next day you can be a paraplegic. But you don't think about these things."

Valenzuela, who makes the sign of the cross before he steps on the track, fell in 1988 and was knocked unconscious when a horse kicked him in the head. "I said, 'I don't ride no more, this is it,' " Valenzuela recalls. "Then the next day, I get up and say, 'I want to go back to riding.' "

Jockeys complain that the public considers them overpaid appendages to magnificent animals that do all the work, when in fact they are superb athletes. "When you talk about a jockey, the average person thinks of a little guy, a tall blonde and a long limousine," says John Giovanni, a former rider who is president of the Jockeys' Guild. "But these guys take the heat. They take the chills, the spills and the abuse, and they just keep punching."

The strain is often overwhelming, and, as in other sports, jockeys turn to drugs and alcohol. In recent years, a drug of choice has been cocaine, because, some track watchers speculate, it is the perfect weight-reducing aid. One trainer says cocaine has infiltrated every jocks' room he's been in. "I've seen jocks walk out of the room with white powder all over their faces," he says.

According to University of Maryland surveys, 47% of track employees have a drug- or alcohol-related problem. Richard Smith, president of the board of the Winners Foundation at Santa Anita, which assists track workers with substance-abuse problems, says that "the percentage of abusers is high." Giovanni doesn't believe it's any higher than in society in general, but he concedes that there are problems among backstretch help, who are paid in cash and battle long stretches of idleness. "And the kids (training to be jockeys) don't learn to ride on a merry-go-round," he says, "they learn on the backstretch."

For some, the Valenzuela episode underscores a failure by the California Horse Racing Board to come to grips with the issue of drug and alcohol abuse. In California, stewards, the umpires of the track, must have probable cause to test a jockey for drugs or alcohol. Generally, a rider who tests positive is taken off his mounts and enrolled in a treatment program until experts declare him ready to return. The rider is then subject to unannounced drug tests at the track. For a second positive test, he may be suspended for six months or a year; a third violation may be cause for a lifetime suspension.

Few of these programs are official, however, according to Dr. Robert Kerlan, medical adviser to the Jockeys' Guild. "There have to be rules and regulations from the horse-racing board so that it's an official stance or posture, which can then be more readily interpreted by the stewards."

Moving in that direction, the state-run horse-racing board has recently formed a Human Substance Abuse Committee to recommend policies for penalties and treatment. "I think recent events concerning, in some cases, very prominent jockeys and trainers, have indicated to the board the need for a sound state policy regulating alcohol and drug substance problems" at the track, says Smith, one of eight members on the committee.

When Valenzuela explains how drugs came into his life years ago, he loses his easygoing glibness. "I had low self-esteem," he begins haltingly. "You start hanging out with the wrong people, and people start pressuring you to do things, and that's what happens."

Then in a rare moment of self-analysis, Valenzuela adds, "I really didn't think I deserved the stuff I was getting, like winning all these races and being leading rider. If I thought I should have won a race and didn't win it, I took it out on myself. It's a combination of a bunch of different pressures."

Valenzuela, despite the implication of his refusal to test, insists that he's been clean and sober "for about a year and a half." Through 1992, he will be tested every other day for drugs and alcohol and must participate five times a week in a 12-step recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous and meet twice a week with case managers from the Winners Foundation. "But I'll tell you one thing, when I get back, if I have to hire a taxi to take me to test, I'll be there."

DURING HIS COMPULSORY vacation, Valenzuela spent time with his three daughters, Elizabeth, 2, Kristin, 4, and Michele, 7. Divorced from his wife, Jeana, last year after eight years of marriage, he shares custody of the girls. "To tell you the truth," Valenzuela says of his time putting on training wheels, "it's fun, it's really fun. I may never get another chance to do this."

But six months off? In six months last year, he made about $350,000.

"Don't get me wrong," the rider adds, "I miss work and I miss them paychecks. When I drive by Santa Anita, I'm wishing I'm there. It does hurt. If it didn't, I wouldn't be human."

To take his mind off the pain, he visited the ranchos of his youth in New Mexico. One night in Albuquerque, Valenzuela went to dinner with his older brother Johnny Raul: "This one guy comes up to me and says, 'Pat Valenzuela, I want to meet a legend.' And I said, 'Where's Bill Shoemaker?' I'm not no damn legend. I'm just a kid who came out of New Mexico."

A kid out of New Mexico with a name that has signified riding success since the 1950s, that is. Pat's father, Albino, and his uncles Ismael, Mario, Santiago and Angel, all born in Mexico; and later, Patrick's brothers, A. C. Jr., J. R., Fabian and Fernando, have all made their livings as jockeys. Ismael, better known as Milo, was the most successful, with Kentucky Derby winners Tim Tam in 1958 and Forward Pass in 1968.

Patrick was barely out of the cradle before he started challenging his brothers and uncles to hell-bent races in the dry riverbeds around his childhood homes in Colorado and New Mexico. "As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a jockey," he says.

When his father introduced 5-year-old Pat to Shoemaker on the Santa Anita backstretch, Valenzuela knew exactly what to do. "I got down on my hands and knees," says Valenzuela, assuming a crouch, "to show him how I was going to ride when I got older."

Having worked on the backstretch--cleaning feed tubs, mucking out stalls and working horses--Valenzuela entered the racing world when he rode his first winner, Parker Petite, at Sunland Park in New Mexico, on Nov. 10, 1978, 24 days after his 16th birthday.

The following March, Valenzuela left the bush tracks of the Southwest to live with Uncle Milo in Arcadia. Together each morning, they hustled for live calls in the afternoon. Then, on May 3, across town at Hollywood Park, Pat scored a $60.80 upset on Wheat for his first win in California. "When I won that first race," Valenzuela recalls, "I said, 'This is mine. I'll be here for a while,' and I've been here ever since."

On the same day, the rider picked up an agent, Jerry Ingordo, known for his knack with apprentice riders. By March 22, 1980, Valenzuela had 72 winners, shattering Gordon Glisson's 1948-1949 apprentice mark of 57. Before the week was out, he won the Santa Anita Derby on Codex, a 25-1 shot. During the race, the paths of Shoemaker and Valenzuela crossed again.

"It was about the half-mile pole," recalls Shoemaker, who was riding Raise a Man. "Patrick was moving. I said, 'Just wait a while, you're moving a little too soon there, jock. You got a long way to go.' "

Valenzuela finishes, grinning: "I said, 'I can't help it. I got too much horse.' And I went by him."

It seemed no one could hold Valenzuela back. He finished the season with 83 wins, in third place behind Laffit Pincay Jr. and Chris McCarron.

In subsequent seasons, Valenzuela consistently ranked among the top riders. In 1982, he won the George Woolf Award, given annually by Santa Anita to the rider who best reflects credit to his profession both on and off the track. But in 1988, the jockey whose riding exploits inspired superlatives began attracting attention for the wrong reasons--the multiple sick days, the lame excuses for his absences. That March, the Santa Anita stewards, exasperated by Valenzuela's increasing absences, suspended him for the remainder of the season, about a month and a half. But no one, not the media, not the stewards, mentioned drug abuse.

Two months later, while attempting a comeback at Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine, but the test was thrown out because of a technicality. Valenzuela then resurfaced in June at Hawthorne Race Track near Chicago and performed well until he fractured his leg in a starting-gate accident. But he was back at Santa Anita in the fall to win his first Oak Tree title with 44 wins, including a record-tying six wins in one day.

In 1989, Valenzuela hit his stride. He won the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby on Sunday Silence, a colt that zigzagged down Churchill Downs' storied stretch like a drunk reeling from too many mint juleps. During the chaotic winner's circle ceremony, the rider told a nationwide television audience to "just say no to drugs." Two weeks later, Valenzuela and Sunday Silence won a whip-cracking stretch duel over Pat Day and Easy Goer in the Preakness Stakes.

But before year's end, Valenzuela seemed to self-destruct, bombing out on big races. On October 14, when he was supposed to ride Hawkster in the Oak Tree Invitational, he called in sick at the last minute. Six days later, the stewards at Santa Anita ordered that he take a drug test; he came out positive for cocaine and got a 60-day suspension. He had to sit idly by as Sunday Silence won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic under McCarron.

Last year, in a virtual replay of his roller-coaster seasons of 1988 and 1989, Valenzuela won riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. But on November 3, Valenzuela called in sick the day of the $1-million inaugural California Cup at Santa Anita. Later that day, steward Tom Ward telephoned the track physician, Dr. Neal Fisher, and asked him to test Valenzuela. Valenzuela refused.

The following month, at a hearing before stewards to determine the penalty, Valenzuela was uncharacteristically silent. "I'm really kicking myself in the butt," Valenzuela says now. "There's a lot of questions in my mind that I wanted to ask." His version, which he did not argue during the hearing, is that the stewards never asked him to test. But the track physician is an arm of the steward, so Valenzuela's excuse didn't wash.

"He indicated through Dr. Fisher that he would not test," Ward says. "That's the sum and substance of it."

Before the stewards' ruling on December 22, the directors of the Jockeys' Guild, which represents most riders in the United States, voted 22-2 to send Valenzuela a warning of expulsion. Valenzuela, who eventually resigned from the guild, says his colleagues had ulterior motives. "You gotta figure I'm one of their main competitors," he says. "I was the only one to win two meets out of the five last year, and you know that hurts their checkbook."

VALENZUELA HAS BEEN called a devil on horseback. His horses seem to pop the gate with a length head-start and run as if their tails were on fire. "He has some kind of sixth sense of communication with horses," says Bill Spawr, a leading trainer at Santa Anita. Adds trainer Mel Stute: "He just has something that gets the horses running and keeps 'em running."

According to Ingordo, Valenzuela never had a riding slump in the 11 years they were together. "He could come back right now and catch the leaders," says Ingordo, who split with the rider after Valenzuela didn't show up to ride Hawkster. "You go and get the horses, and who winds up riding? Somebody else. I mean, I love the kid, but I just couldn't do it anymore."

Says Valenzuela about the breakup: "It was a mutual agreement. You know, you get tired of the same old stuff sometimes." His new agent, Bob Meldahl, understands his limitations, Valenzuela says, and doesn't pitch a fit every time he wants a day off.

Short, wiry and tough, Ingordo says he spent $10,000 in traveling expenses to keep a tight rein on Valenzuela during the 1989 Triple Crown races. "If I didn't go with him, he wouldn't have ridden," Ingordo says sharply. "You have to watch him all the time."

"I would have been there no matter what," Valenzuela insists.

Ingordo says he often was called before the stewards to explain his jockey's absences. "It's just like having a son," he says. "You're the last one to know what's happening."

The two have rarely spoken at the track since the Hawkster episode, a logistical feat considering racing's insular world. "If I knew it would help, I would talk to him," Ingordo says. "But I've talked to him until I was blue in the face. He really doesn't believe that he's got the problem he's got."

Last August, Meldahl booked Valenzuela to ride Sunny Blossom in the $350,000-added Frank J. DeFrancis Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The race was the best shot for owner Dan Kenny and his partners at such a large purse. "We were competing at the highest level of the game, where we finally get lucky and get a good horse," Kenny recalls.

When Valenzuela called in sick that morning, Kenny and trainer Gregson had to scramble for another jockey.

"It was just a feeling of being totally abandoned by a guy who wasn't fulfilling his professional duties and wouldn't admit it," Kenny says. He is still waiting for Valenzuela to apologize. "This is a very forgiving group of people because they know how tough this sport is," Kenny says, "but until he says, 'I've got a problem,' I don't think he's got a chance." Valenzuela claims that he's squarely addressing his problem. He calls himself an addict in the same breath that he calls himself a jockey. When he speaks of his values, he lists "a lifetime commitment" to "my sobriety, my kids and my career," in that order.

"The worst decision I've ever had in my life was probably trying drugs," Valenzuela admits. "My past with drugs is long gone."

He glowers at the suggestion that he may be down to his last strike. "I don't consider anything a strike," he says testily. "My life is my life.

IT'S 6:30 A.M. on a cold, brilliantly sunny March morning at Santa Anita. Valenzuela strides toward the gap next to the racing office in cadence to the hoofbeats of horses stepping onto the track. His eyes shine; he looks smart in tight jeans, honey-colored turtleneck, maroon racing jacket and black boots.

"Hey, where you been?" asks one trainer. "Where you been?" Valenzuela shoots back. The hugs and handshakes from exercise boys, grooms, owners and friends come one after the other.

Valenzuela has been dreaming about letting everyone know he's back and ready to race. This first day back, he is on the march, proving that he's better than ever, talking himself up, trying to get back onto winning horses. He is his own PR firm, with a constant smooth patter and an electric smile--even with his reputation, trainers love him.

"There may be some hesitation in people using me," he says, "but I am going to prove that I will be myself. And with time, people will see that."

"I think this is his last chance as far as I can see," says trainer Ron McAnally, his feelings still raw from Valenzuela's failure to ride Hawkster.

"I think if he goofs up this time, it would be the end," says Stute. "You get so many chances, and he's had his."

But most trainers, including McAnally and Stute, say they will ride Valenzuela again. There is a higher order governing racing.

"I think trainers might say they're reluctant to use this (rider), but anything that gets their horse to the winner's circle . . . ," Gregson says. "Winning cures all ills on the race track."

After the 7:30 a.m. break, trainer Bobby Frankel tells Valenzuela to work Missionary Ridge. "Do about 48 (seconds)," Frankel says.

"My clock may be a little rusty," Valenzuela says. On the track, the clockers catch the jockey and colt going 48 1/5.

But there's another clock ticking in Valenzuela's head, mercilessly measuring his recovery. Will Valenzuela finally shake his "talented but troubled" rep?

Says Valenzuela, smiling: "Maybe this time they'll just say talented."

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